Climate change: Scientists warn that the time to act is now

As climate talks remain deadlocked, scientists from Future Earth lay out the case for immediate action to avert catastrophic climate change impacts
<p>Escaping the Dhansiri floods in Assam [Image by: Rubul Ahmed]</p>

Escaping the Dhansiri floods in Assam [Image by: Rubul Ahmed]

Climate change impacts are occurring earlier than scientists had forecast. And disasters such as floods across Asia and fires in North America can be linked to global warming with increased certainty. In this scenario, halving global emissions of greenhouse gases over the next decade is technically achievable and will save the world billions of dollars, say scientists from Future Earth, an international collective of experts.

Speaking on the sidelines of the December 2-14 UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland, Johan Rockström, Co-Chair of Future Earth and Chair of the Earth League, said, “Emissions must peak by 2020. The world cannot allow climate catastrophe to unfold when all the solutions to solve this challenge are here in front of us.”

While the annual summit enters its second week with negotiations deadlocked over which country should do how much and pay how much, Future Earth Executive Director Amy Luers said, “Our analysis of the most recent research shows that a global transition to clean energy is affordable, achievable, and already underway. But to avoid catastrophe, we must ratchet up the pace and move beyond energy. The research shows clearly that we must cut emissions by half across all economic sectors in the next decade, to have a chance of avoiding the worst impacts of the climate crisis.”

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had said more or less the same thing – though in more guarded language – in a special report this October.

See: 1.5 degree ambition demands radical change, UN warns

10 New Insights in Climate Science

Scientists at Future Earth and the Earth League have reviewed more recent academic papers than those considered by the IPCC and have come to even more dire conclusions that they sum up as 10 New Insights in Climate Science.

1. Extreme weather events are now clearly attributable to climate change. The frequency and intensity of extreme events, including flooding, heat waves and droughts have been increasing. Until recently, it was difficult to clearly attribute these events to climate change. Now, more accurate observations and progress in modelling has made the link clear.

2. Growing climate impacts show risks of critical tipping points. Changes have been observed in major Earth systems – like a weakening of the Atlantic overturning circulation, mass mortality of the world’s coral reefs and the tripling of ice loss from the West Antarctic ice sheet. These and other systems could reach points where they rapidly collapse or a major, largely unstoppable transformation is initiated. The risks are growing.

3. Every half degree matters. There are large difference in impacts between 1.5°C and 2°C degrees of warming. This year’s IPCC Special Report on 1.5oC has shown that the magnitude and risk of a range of climate change impacts increase significantly between 1.5°C and 2°C.

4. There is new understanding of the acceleration of sea level rise and its future. The rate of ice loss from Antarctica is increasing. It is now almost twice as high as projected by the IPCC assessment in 2014. Limiting warming to 1.5°C instead of 2°C can avoid the inundation of lands currently home to about five million people.

5. Managing plants and soil is a prerequisite for meeting the Paris Agreement. Between 2007 and 2016, land use change was responsible for annual global emissions of, on average, 4.7 billion tons of carbon dioxide (CO2), which is around 12% of COemissions. Natural climate solutions could potentially provide over one-third of the cost-effective climate mitigation needed between now and 2030 to stabilise warming to below 2°C.

6. Options to remove CO2from the atmosphere are limited. Scenarios that have recently been assessed by the IPCC show that the world will need to draw down between 100 and 1,000 billion tons of COout of the air, so-called Carbon Dioxide Removal (CDR), during this century to achieve the 1.5oC target. But research shows that CDR at the upper end of this scale is in conflict with other sustainable development goals.

7. Major socio-technical transformations are needed to meet the 1.5°C target. Globally, approximately halving greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 is consistent with meeting the Paris Agreement goal to stay “well below 2°C”. This is technically feasible, but this scale of emissions reductions requires transformations of full socio-technical systems across all sectors and scales. There is already considerable momentum in the energy sector so that it could see major shifts towards very low emissions, with the right support. However, there is worryingly little progress in reducing emissions from buildings, transport, food systems and industry.

8. Stronger policy measures would reduce climate risks. Global fossil fuel subsidies remain massive. Phasing these out would reduce global carbon emissions and strengthen public budgets, but reforms should consider acceptance, effects on poverty, and possible adverse effects such as shifts from gas to coal. A portfolio of policies including standards, regulations, incentives and carbon pricing would effectively support and accelerate a low-carbon transition.

9. Food systems need to be transformed for global health and reduced greenhouse gas emissions. Decarbonising and building resilience in the world food system is a prerequisite to succeed with the Paris Agreement. Reduced meat and dairy consumption is a significant way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and improve health.

10. Addressing climate change has benefits for global health. Climate change is increasing the numbers of injuries, illnesses, and deaths from, for example, extreme weather and climate events, infectious diseases and undernutrition. Efforts to combat climate change would have significant co-benefits for health, chiefly, saving millions of lives through lower air pollution.

Read: South and Southeast Asia most at risk by climate change